Chapter Thirteen: First of the Last
Day One: Night
Michael and Azrael had been walking for hours, attempting to get closer to the thundering walk. At first, it had been in front of them, but now they felt surrounded by the noise.
In silence, they exited Beal City through its rear, moving past the charred rubble of the church. A congested forest made up of dark green and purple foliage crept into the outskirts of Beal City as though beginning a natural invasion. Michael and Azrael cautiously navigated through the thick of this forest, clearing through vines that felt more like snakes: thick, muscular, and slimy to the touch. Gigantic leaves the size of bodies extended from the branches, and the ground beneath the young men’s feet had changed from coarse sand to something damp and shallow, as though they were in the shallowest of swamps. A sour odor emanated from the leaves, affecting Michael’s ability to track.
The sun had descended on their journey, and the branches were so tightly wound together that moonlight could only shoot pinpricks down through the canopy of the forest. In some places, the forest came alive, tightening itself to seal holes and block the light as if rejecting it.
All the while, the calamitous footsteps seemed to engulf them, as though it was the forest itself somehow barreling down upon the hapless residents of Beal City. There was no pinning down the rhythmic origin; it was everywhere at once.
More than once, Michael was almost overcome by a sense of dread accompanied by the thought: we should not be here. Ahead of Azrael by a few paces, Michael wondered how the crossling managed to stay so calm. The chilling atmosphere of the forest didn’t seem to affect him. Growing up in Olymparus, who knows what he’s had to endure…
As Michael used his left forearm to move a shield-sized leaf out of his way, another booming footstep echoed for miles. He came to the sudden, chilling realization that he hadn’t heard a cricket, owl, or any other nocturnal life since the sun set. He and Azrael were the only living beings in the forest.
“We should abandon this.” Azrael said, as if coming to the same realization. Michael turned back to look at Azrael, his arm still keeping the leaf at bay. Azrael met Michael’s stare. “Do you hear that?” Azrael asked as another footstep shook the realm. “Whatever is coming, we may not be able to stand against it–.”
The two angels heard splash behind them, as if something had fallen to the ground. Michael and Azrael immediately grew silent as they vainly looked behind them. We’re being tracked, Azrael Reached for Michael. Michael nodded. I know. Mental silence. They may be using it to track us.
Michael looked at Azrael and nodded over the crossling’s shoulder. Azrael nodded and turned around, soundlessly leaping into the density of the forest and vanishing. Michael glanced up, trying to find a suitable perch—and found it, approximately ten feet away and to the left. Bracing himself, he bound for the outstretched limb and landed silently atop it. The branch wasn’t solid and seemed to buckle under the sudden weight. Michael fought back, maintaining his balance and then squatting.
Within minutes, a shadowed figure passed beneath them slowly and hauntingly. It stopped directly beneath Michael, who gripped his perch as another thunderous step shook the area. It was as though as spirit had been pursuing them, its outer edges blurred and appearing footless.
Spirits don’t fall down.
It was that thought that Michael kept in his mind as he threw himself from the perch and landed atop the solid black spectre. The ‘ghost’ screamed in surprise and pain as Michael brought his foot down on his quarry’s shoulder.
Michael quickly reached down, jerking the stalker to its feet. He wrapped his right forearm under its chin and then locked it into place by placing his right fist inside his left elbow, and simultaneously began to twist and squeeze. Whatever it was, it wasn’t putting up much of a fight.
“J-J-John…” It managed.
Michael recognized the voice and was almost immediately angry. He considered finishing the job…and then released his grip, letting the boy collapse to the ground, where he began coughing as air was forced back into his lungs.
Irritated, Michael looked up at Azrael as he emerged from hiding. Michael looked back down to the boy, who began to pick himself up. “Anders…” Michael said through grit teeth, “One of these days, your stalking is going to get you killed.”
Anders dusted himself off. He had changed clothes since leaving the infirmary. “Eh, I could’ve gotten out of it.” He smirked as he looked at Michael.
“Really?” Michael replied, raising his eyebrows. He reached both hands for Anders, who swayed. “Let me put you back in it, and we’ll see.”
Anders stumbled backwards, and Azrael put his arm between Michael and Anders. “We don’t have time for this.” He said simply. He turned to Anders. “What are you doing here?”
“I was following you.” Anders replied, as though the answer was obvious. “No one ever comes out here.”
“I see why,” Michael grumbled. “You shouldn’t be out here, especially in your condition.”
Anders shook his head, dismissing the notion of danger. “Ahhh, there’s nothing out here to hurt you, John. Although this forest stinks and it’s creepy. I was hoping you and the Pale One here were going to take it down.”
“Pale one?” Azrael scoffed, offended. “Learn some respect, boy.”
“I’m just kidding.” Anders offered apologetically. “But why else would you be out here? I know you’re warning the Great Wind Gate.“
“The what?” Michael and Azrael spoke simultaneously. Michael pointed to the ground as he spoke.
“Wait a moment. One of the Great Wind Gates is here?”
Anders nodded. He seemed surprised that neither Azrael nor Michael knew this. “Yes, just beyond this forest, not one mile from here. It’s why the city was set up here, to protect it. I’ve never seen it. I was hoping to follow you guys to…”
Michael and Azrael looked to each other in horrific acknowledgement. They both realized at the same time; the footsteps had ceased.
“You mean that’s not why you guys are out here?”
A terrible rumbling coursed through the ground, originating from the path they had not yet traveled. Within seconds, it reached the ground beneath their feet and its intensity doubled.
The crash of a hundred glasses shattering accompanied the sudden stabbing pain that struck Michael’s right foot between his big and middle toes. Before Michael could scream, something sent him flying thirty feet into the air.
The last thing he heard was the agonizing bellow of a creature that was both enraged and in eternal pain. The dark scream literally shook the forest, and Michael, already airborne, was sent flying several feet back towards Beal City. The angry, tortured scream could be heard across the Kingdom, and Michael instinctively covered his ears to save his hearing.
Michael was then caught in the wake of a thousand needles grazing his body, or so it seemed, as shooting pain tore up his legs, torso, and arms. Fresh cuts opened, and Michael felt his strength begin to ebb as his blood was spilled.
How much time had passed?
He felt like he had been flying forever, and now the overpowering stench of methane and sulfur suddenly robbed him of his ability to breathe. He could still hear, although his hands muffled much of it, and the thunderous footsteps he and Azrael had been tracking were dangerously close now. The gargantuan creature was taking its first steps into the Kingdom. Azrael. Where was Azrael? Where was Anders? Had they made it?
Michael was dizzy and nauseous. He tried to center himself; it was glass that had sliced him up…which meant that there was a mirror underground. Was that possible? Michael had heard of the technology, but until now, he hadn’t seen it in action. He no longer doubted its effectiveness.
Some wounds were deeper than others. Removing a hand from his ear, Michael held his chest just under his left breast in a vain attempt to control the bleeding. A dull pain began to set in at the rear of his head. His heart roared inside of him and its chaotic rhythm flooded his entire body. Even his toes throbbed with every pulse. He wouldn’t –couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t open his mouth. He tried to open his eyes; they refused. Panic set in as Michael realized he was losing consciousness.
Still yourself. His father’s words, spoken often when Michael was younger, entered his head. Control your body.
The creature took another step into his Kingdom. It let out another dark shriek, as if celebrating its release from the lake of fire.
Michael forced his eyes open. He couldn’t see clearly, but he could make out the desert floor. The sand was thirty feet below and coming up fast. He wasn’t flying, he was falling.
Michael exhaled first to brace himself. This was still his land, which meant the sulfuric stench would be filtered out. Indeed, the oxygen was beating the sulfur back into hell, and the air was relatively fresh. He inhaled deeply and felt his heart rate return to normal.
The forest was thrashing violently, its thick branches flailing as though it had been injured by the creature’s arrival. As the leaves thrashed they raced through a myriad of colors from the deepest purple to the brightest crimson. Out of his peripheral vision, beneath him, a branch/limb was swinging towards him. Michael performed a semi-flip, diving headfirst towards the branch, and palmed it on his way down. His fingers dug into something wet and soft, and he grunted, nearly snapping his shoulder out of the socket as his grip kept him from falling to the ground.
Michael kept his legs together, propelling himself first backwards, and then forwards. His feet went out ahead of him as he flipped, landing tenuously on the branch. It seemed to respond to his intentions and became still beneath his footing.
At last, Michael could see everything.
Not twenty feet from him was a gaping hole where sand fell over shattered glass, pouring into a bottomless abyss below. Michael knew where that went.
Glowing, orange aqueous fluids ran from the immense, sick-legged creature that plodded slowly away from Beal City. It was surrounded by a host of various humanoid creatures fresh from the lake of fire. Smoke rolled off of rotting flesh, some of which fell lifelessly to the ground, revealing singed bone beneath. Hellfire burned brightest in those spots, grotesquely replacing lost flesh and limbs. A lifeless din could be heard from their combined groaning, and if it could be construed as anything, it may have been relief. These were the ones who received the worst of Yin’s punishment: eternity in the Lake of Fire. These were the Damned. They were being led by the demon Michael had contended with earlier.
A cursory glance didn’t turn up Anders or Azrael, and Michael couldn’t risk Reaching lest the demon key his location. Michael had to trust in Azrael’s resourcefulness.
As the lake melted away from the mammoth creature, Michael could make out smooth, bone-white skin. It had two heads shaped as deformed ovals; the right head seemed nonchalant, content to examine the ground as it passed, taking in the surface with the black eyes of a hammerhead shark. It’s left head seemed more alert. As quickly as its dense neck could manage, its head swung from side to side, surveying the whole of the land. It swung too close to its primal head, and the two crashed. The result was an angry cry from the primal head, quickly returned by a dominating bellow by the intelligent one. The primal head seemed to cower under the shriek of its intelligent counterpart.
A curved horn, two feet high and about an inch thick, completed the look. The intelligent head’s horn reached into the sky, while the primal horn was positioned directly in front of it. It would skewer anything it ran into.
The demon ordered something to the Damned placed at the rear of the beast, and as one, grumbling, they turned, and began to march back towards Beal City. Although Michael couldn’t understand Hellspeak, he knew why the Damned was heading in that direction.
As his injuries healed, Michael hoped that beast’s horns were as brittle as they looked. As if to accommodate him, the branch Michael stood on extended itself and joined with another tree a few feet away.
Michael took one deep breath. The damned would pay him no mind, and the demon…well, the demon would have to wait.
Michael began sprinting along the conjoined branch. Reaching the second branch placed him at the back of the large demon. When he landed, he would have only seconds.
Without missing a step, Michael dropped seven feet from the branch to the coarse scales of the ivory demon. The intelligent head immediately bucked upwards, releasing a questioning growl. It was an effort for Michael not to hold his breath as he continued to sprint along the back of the demon. With its head raised, it’s horn was perfectly placed.
Michael took three steps along the demon’s neck, and the inquiring grumble became an angry snarl. Using the momentum of his run, Michael took a flying leap, chambering his right leg almost to his chest. At the last second, he fired his foot at the base of the intelligent head’s horn. A flash of anguish shot through Michael’s leg—he had put everything he had into that kick—but the result was worth it. The horn cracked, and as Michael passed, he reached out behind him, grabbing the horn with his left hand. With every bit of strength he had, he yanked downward, and the demon hollered in shock and surprise. The horn snapped clean off.
It was instinct from there.
Michael immediately turned to the bewildered demon leader, and in the second their eyes met, Michael saw the flash of recognition pass through its eyes. Michael didn’t allow him a word, slashing wide with the horn and opening a gash in the demon an inch deep. Viscous green fluid exploded outward, and the black demon shrieked as it fell to the ground.
A shadow loomed over Michael. He immediately dodged to the right, barely avoiding something that crashed to the ground where he once was. The head of intelligence had just tried to consume him. Fear quickly shot through Michael as he clasped the horn with both hands. He was now between both heads.
Without thought, Michael turned to the primal head and saw the apex of its horn coming for him. Michael leapt and deftly landed atop the horn. Before the demon could react, Michael sprinted to the top of its head and slashed from right to left, cutting through flesh to brain matter. He brought the horn back, deepening the wound. He then raised the horn above his head and stabbed downward, impaling the demon’s brain. He continued to push inward–
Michael shrieked involuntarily as a pair of teeth closed around his midsection and left arm, and suddenly he was torn away from the primal head and again, he was moving quickly through the air. This time, it wasn’t freely. Michael clenched his eyes, grit his teeth, and fought to keep his sense of orientation. The pain was almost unbearable. He realized that the intelligent head had gotten the drop on him, and he was now between its jaws. Two rows of shark-like teeth now held him firmly, and Michael was nearly immobile. He managed to open his eyes, catching the irate gaze of the demon. It wanted to make him suffer.
Through the impossible pain and unyielding terror of being eaten alive, Michael remembered; the horn was in his right hand. And he was not dead yet.
Michael inverted his grip on the horn. He raised his hand and began to violently stab at the beast’s face, striking anywhere he could. It became a battle of wills. Michael felt his strength again begin to fade, the pain of knives stabbing his entire body intensified as the demon began to clench its teeth around Michael’s body. Michael stabbed at the creature’s nose and open mouth. It began to bleed, but the damage wasn’t nearly enough to be mortal.
With the last of his energy, and in a bout of sheer determination, Michael brought his hand back one last time and plunged the horn into the demon’s eye. It immediately burst, orange fluid raining down. It screamed in pain, and as it opened its mouth, Michael tumbled out and landed in a heap on the ground.
His mother’s robe tie instantly went to work. Michael, clutching the horn, lay on his stomach, trying to find the energy to rise. He could still hear the demon shrieking above him. Get up, get up…GET UP!!!!
Michael pushed himself to his feet and sprinted towards the demon, whose head was raised as it tried to dull the pain of being blinded. Its primal head lay limp and lifeless at the side.
Michael climbed atop the primal head, sprinted along its head, and then leapt towards the neck of the intelligent heat. As he passed, he slashed downwards. The neck gave no resistance as the horn passed through it, and the demon’s head landed before Michael touched down.
Michael caught his breath without looking back. Holding the horn as his injuries healed themselves, Michael looked to the shocked demon leader, who was trying to hide its surprise.
There was a final, thunderous boom behind him, this one harmless. With no accompanying roar of intimidation and its threat passed, the creature fell to the Kingdom dead, and Michael began his advance towards the demon that had brought it here.
(c) Avery K. Tingle for Akting Out LLC
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